For nearly 20 years, Asheville's Steep Canyon Rangers have been pushing the limits of bluegrass. Even in their lineup, they expand traditional boundaries; in 2013, they augmented their mandolin-acoustic guitar-banjo-fiddle configuration with a percussionist, Mike Ashworth. They've also teamed up with comedian, author, actor, and banjo player Steve Martin for two albums, played with Edie Brickell, and performed with symphony orchestras, but that's just the showy stuff. The real boundary-breaking is within the grooves of their 10 studio albums.
On 2015's Radio, for example, the title track bounces with the assured groove of a rock band, albeit an acoustic one. "Boomtown," from 2013's Tell The Ones I Love is a glistening country ballad, and the swaying "Knob Creek" from 2012's Nobody Knows You mixes classical chops with complex, jazz-inflected solos. There are certainly pure, down-home bluegrass jams on these albums, where the instruments swirl around one another in tight ensemble arrangements and the vocal harmonies soar, but there have always been progressive moments right alongside the familiar ones.
The Rangers' just-released album, Out in the Open, pulls further away from tradition than ever. The opening track, "Farmers & Pharaohs" creates some sort of acoustic roots-pop hybrid, with a catchy chorus and a stripped-down backing that's largely just bass, drums, and mandolin. "Can't Go Home" could've been on country radio in the '90s, and "Roadside Anthem" is a sweeping, genre-free ballad that abandons virtuoso playing in favor of a simple-but-moving rhythm where the instruments fuse together as one.
It's easily the most forward-thinking album the band has made, and what's surprising is that they recorded it just like an old-time bluegrass band would've: all in the same room, playing at the same time, with little or no overdubs, at the behest of producer Joe Henry.
And somehow, this band who'd been playing dazzling live shows together for 18 years, had never done that in the studio before.
"We were a little nervous because we hadn't done it that way," says mandolin player Mike Guggino, "but it came out great. Actually, it was wonderful. We realize now that it's the best way for us to make a record because we've been a band for so many years. We're used to playing together — we've played so many live shows that we were really comfortable doing it. I'm really glad he insisted we record that way."
In a way, it was one of the greatest musical challenges that the Rangers had faced, even after years of pushing the limits of their genre.
"Everybody has to get it at the same time," Guggino says. "You can't really make any mistakes. When you overdub, particularly with vocals, you can sing the harmonies later. If you sing out of tune or the wrong words, you can fix it. But with his method, every word play, every note, and every syllable has to be right on."
Luckily, the Rangers were in the middle of an intense period of activity when they recorded Out in the Open, and they were ready to go once they got into the studio. "This was the first time we've made a record in the middle of a touring cycle," Guggino says. "We typically make our records in the winter, during our downtime. We'd been on the road so much that we just worked on the stuff together before and after the shows. So it's not like we were throwing a bunch of musicians together in the studio to make the record. We're a live, touring band and that helped us be able to do that."
The band had never worked with Henry, an acclaimed performer in his own right, before Out in the Open. In fact, they'd never even met him; he was recommended by the Rangers' manager, Dolph Ramseur.
"We weren't sure how he was going to approach it," Guggino says. "Some producers are real hands-on with arrangements, with suggesting lyric changes, and we didn't really need that. But that's not what Joe was doing. He was trying to capture a feeling or a track that had energy or emotion. He's also a North Carolina guy, and we looked at his resume and some of the things that he'd produced, most notably the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and he seemed like a good fit."
One of the most interesting contradictions of the Steep Canyon Rangers is how much experimentation they've done with their music versus the awards they've gotten from the mainstream bluegrass community. They've won three IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Awards, and two Grammys for Best Bluegrass Album. Despite that, Guggino says the group considers themselves a songwriter's band above all else.
"We take the songwriting very seriously," he says. "We quit worrying about genre or style and write songs that feel right to us. If that's a bluegrass song, great. If it's not, that's fine too. We're just writing songs and playing music we like that comes from the heart and speaks to us. We're not necessarily trying to fit in any certain mold or anything like that."